2014 Birmingham Bike Show Report

MotorcycleUSA Staff | December 2, 2014
Being low, very low indeed, down the food chain at Motorcycle USA I rarely receive e-mails from the great and the good in our palatial Head Offices in Medford, Oregon. Even rarer is a message directly from the Boss of All Bosses, our Worshipful Editor Mr. Madson. When I do, it nearly always spells trouble. In this case, it was indeed trouble – with a capital T. It read:

“Melling, you are to go the Birmingham Motorcycle Show and you are to behave like an adult. Better, you are to attempt to behave like an adult motorcycle journalist.

“I expect you to write a factually accurate piece of prose which is fair and balanced to all the exhibitors and covers every part of the motorcycling spectrum.

“You are specifically forbidden to run around like a five-year-old in a candy store and you are not to indulge in your quasi sexual fantasies about which motorcycles you wish to ride and own in 2015.

B Madson – Editor in Chief.”

Well, this was clearly job-on-the-line territory so what could I do but obey orders?

I had a great time at the Birmingham Show and KTM gave us a nice cup of coffee and a biscuit each.

There were a load of Chinese bikes and they were all rubbish.

There was an American bike, whose name I can’t remember, and it was rubbish.

There were some scooters and they were rubbish too and mainly for girls, or blokes who want to be big girls and wear pink jackets. They were rubbish.

BMW was okay and Triumph was okay as well.

Suzuki had a 650 V-Strom which my wife, Carol, liked because it was a lovely color of metallic ruby red.

There were some electric bikes and they were all rubbish.

Then there was the Kawasaki H2R – and the world stopped.

Please don’t send a comment telling me that you don’t like the styling or the bike is the wrong color green or that 326 horsepower is silly or even bad. I respect, and welcome, readers’ comments but in this case you are wrong because the H2R is beyond criticism – it is probably even beyond perfection.

The H2R is the reason I get up in the morning with aching limbs – and smile at my good fortune that I have broken my body in the pursuit of motorcycling pleasure.

It is the reason why I can look at a Fast Jet pilot not with envy but pity because he isn’t a motorcyclist.

It is why I smile at Russian billionaires and think, “Yes, you might have a $100 million super yacht and a private island in the Caribbean – but you don’t ride a bike so you are still a second-rate citizen.”

The H2R is motorcycling at its heart and soul. It is the epicenter of our passion’s very existence and this makes it perfect.

So, where to start? In case you have been for a long vacation on the Planet Zog, and have just recently returned to Planet Earth, in 2012 Kawasaki convened a senior management meeting in Japan and decided to make a statement to the world at large.

The proclamation would be a motorcycle which was utterly and totally uncompromising and which took no prisoners in terms of its design. In doing this, there would be no concessions in relation to its engineering, materials, styling or power. It would be the end of the line. The terminus at the end of the railroad track. The last order as the barman closed for the night. The final seat in the floor show as the universe came to an end.

In thinking like this, Kawasaki had a number of advantages over every other motorcycle manufacturer. Bikes are quite a minor part of the Kawasaki Heavy Industries’ empire which stretches from ship building to aerospace.

One key part is that Kawasaki is a sub-contractor for Rolls Royce Trent jet engines and knows a lot, an awful lot, about high-speed, high-temperature turbines. They particularly know how to make turbines reliable because having aircraft engines blow up mid-Atlantic is not considered to be good business practice.

Kawasaki is also both an aircraft manufacturer in its own right and a sub-contractor for state of the art projects such as Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. So, Kawasaki also knows a huge amount about aerospace quality carbon fiber and aerodynamics. The aerodynamics on the H2R are going to be a significant issue because this bike is going to romp through the 200 mph barrier as if it isn’t there.

So what is Kawasaki offering? At the heart of the H2R is a conventional 998cc, DOHC, four-cylinder engine.

But, and this is the biggest but of all time, the H2R engine is supercharged. Air is blown in via a planetary gear supercharger, operating at 9.2 times crank speed. At the H2R’s rev limit of 14,000 rpm the supercharger spins at almost 130,000 rpm.

Drag racers will yawn and say so what. The huge difference between them and the H2R is that the supercharger is not designed for race meetings and all the intense care and attention which race engines receive. On the contrary, a nearly identical version of the H2R will be unleashed on the world in the road-legal H2, which will be street bike reliable and able to deal with everyday riding. If this turns out to be true, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be the case because the bike has a regular Kawasaki warranty, then it will be a remarkable piece of engineering.

The gearbox is dog ring, lifted from Kawasaki’s MotoGP bike, to ensure ultra-quick shifting and the suspension and brakes are World Superbike quality.

In terms of the aerodynamics, every part of the bike is focused on stability. Even the mirrors of the road bike play their part in making the H2 safe and efficient as a practical motorcycle.

This is the other great joy of the H2. It’s not a silly show bike which can only be wheeled from your van and on to a static display. On the contrary, you will be able to ride this motorcycle to the shopping mall or the race track.

You can read the full H2 spec here.

Kawasaki’s Martin Lambert was kind enough to fit in an interview with us during what was a hectic time for him at Birmingham and he was as proud of the H2 as a dad with his new baby.

“The H2 is our Halo product. We don’t make pianos or cars. We’re a technology company and we wanted to show the world what we could do – without compromise.

“You have to remember that the H2 isn’t a ZX-10R with a supercharger. We could have done this easily but it wasn’t the aim of the project. The H2 is all-new and it brought a lot of expertise from different Kawasaki divisions and focused it on one point – the H2.

“The supercharger is probably the best example. It’s a totally bespoke unit comprised of 12 vanes, specifically for use on the bike. No sharing or compromises: we just could not make it any better. We pushed the boundaries of technology back with the supercharger because there is no external lubrication. We’re at the limit of what can be currently achieved in terms of engineering and we’re very proud of this.

“In terms of the reliability, we expect the H2 to be as good as every other Kawasaki product. The H2 road bike is actually massively under-stressed. Ninety-percent of the components come from the H2R track bike and this makes over 100 horsepower more so the road bike is never stressed.

“It’s a remarkable bike in so many ways but at its heart is the riding experience. You just open it up and join a new world.”

There’s more from Martin here as well as action footage of the H2R track bike actually running on the dyno. It really is worth viewing the video because the deep, sonorous wail the H2 emits is as evocative of any of the great, iconic motorcycles of all time.

Now before anyone starts being sensible, I am not saying that you need 326 hp for a motorcycle to be good or fun to ride. In fact, I can’t ride my 55 hp classic race bike flat out so, realistically, 60 hp is enough for any motorcycle in any conditions.
The H2 is remarkable, and wonderful, for a very different reason. It raises our eyes from the practical, mundane, achievable and predictable and makes us think what if…

And for this we owe Kawasaki a deep debt of thanks.

Finally, and in some ways most remarkably of all, Kawasaki have reached out to the ordinary rider in terms of price. For $25,000 you could own the road version of the H2 – and with a full manufacturer’s warranty. $25,000 is a lot of money but it is achievable by us – the ordinary working men and women who are the backbone of motorcycling. Get saving now!

Hondas RC213V-S on a pedestal at the Birmingham show.
Honda’s RC213V-S on a pedestal at the Birmingham show.

Kawasaki’s achievement was made all the more remarkable by Honda and it’s RC213V-S. Three times a day at Birmingham, Kawasaki ran the H2 on a dyno in full view of everyone. Kawasaki staff strutted about and giggled and boasted and couldn’t wait to tell everyone the minutest detail of the bike. Sales reps hovered with order books. Nothing could have been more open and transparent.

By contrast, Honda had their RCV road going MotoGP bike perched 10 feet in the air so that it was almost, but not quite, impossible to see anything. What I could see is that the air feed for the plenum chamber is now occupied by road going headlights so getting the engine to breathe should be an interesting engineering exercise.

The whole of the front of the fairing is occupied by two enormous radiators and these look as fragile as what they are which is race radiators.

Where the Kawasaki H2 looks as if you could go trail riding on it, in terms of practicality a single trip down our country lane would destroy the RCV’s radiators when road stones and cow muck smashed into them.

If Kawasaki staff couldn’t wait to show off to me, the Honda crew were under intense pressure not to say a single worthwhile word about the RCV. Here’s how my interview with one member of the Honda staff went.

Melling: Can we talk about the RCV?

Honda: I can tell you that the bike is called the RC213V-S.

Melling: Does it run?

Honda: There is a possibility that it does but the bike is part of an on-going feasibility study.

Melling: What will be the specification of the engine?

Honda: No comment.

Melling: Will it have an engine?

Honda: I can’t comment.

Melling: Will it have two wheels?

Honda: Look Frank, stop ruining my day! The only things I can say are written on this sheet. I’ll get my balls cut off if I say another word.

Melling: Will it have Honda written on the bike?

Honda: I’ll take a chance on this and say yes – probably.

Melling: How much will it cost?

Honda: Are you really trying to get me killed? No one knows. Someone said $250,000 over coffee but no one has any idea really because we don’t know what the bike will be. Now go away and leave me alone – you’ve given me tinnitus.


Except for the H2, the outstanding sports bike at Birmingham would have been the Yamaha R1-M. Not only is the bike stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful both in terms of engineering and execution but it looks certain to be a winner on the track too.

Yamaha tells us that the bike has been very heavily influenced by the M1 MotoGP bikes and the technology is stupendous right from the magnesium/aluminium alloy delta box frame to the carbon fiber body work and electronically controlled suspension.

The “M” version of the R1 has all the trick bits but the road bike is a close relation. I have no doubt that both will be brilliant bikes but the talk is of the “M” costing $30,000 and this is H2 money.

Away from sportbikes, there were two other big stories. Super trailies continue to be everywhere. The attraction to manufacturers is obvious. Riders of these bikes are older, wealthier and aspirational and it’s no trouble whatsoever to part a customer from $25,000 for a tricked up AT bike.

KTM have done a smart thing with their entry-level Super Trailie – the Adventure 1050. Incredibly, KTM are marketing this bike as a “simple” motorcycle with a mere 95 hp, ABS and traction control.” In this context, “simple” has to be compared with KTM’s flagship “complex” 160 hp, 1290 Super Adventure which has more electronic aids than the Starship Enterprise.

Not only is the 1050 “affordable” at around $16,000 but it can be legally restricted to 47 hp to allow riders to own the bike and ride it with the pernicious, restricted European A2 motorcycle licence.

When I asked KTM what the 1050 was like to ride with a 47 hp restriction the answer was interesting. “Well, it’s okay and it does work – but mainly it’s legal.” Read into that what you will.

Why anyone would want more bike than the 1050 is beyond my comprehension because 95 hp, and the fine basic spec of the KTM, will be more than enough for anyone in any conditions. Still bigger and more are always better – aren’t they?

The other big story at Birmingham was retro. Carol was very unimpressed by this since she says I have been retro for the last 40 years. It’s interesting to see that my original leather jacket, which Carol has wanted to eject as a health hazard for decades now, is now being copied by retro manufacturers who are taking great care to make their jacket look as worn and sweat stained as mine – and are charging $300 for the privilege. Wrinklies, look in your wardrobes – you could have a fortune lurking there!

Royal Enfield have put all their bets on the retro theme and some of their attempts at looking 1960s’ Beatlemania-cool are bordering on offensive. I’m not a hand-on-heart-how-dare-you insult-my-flag sort of uber patriot but an Indian-made, fake café racer, with the performance of an arthritic slug, shouldn’t be carrying a Union Jack paintjob. I hope Enfield starts manufacturing a Matchless G.50 replica and then they can put our flag on this bike with my blessing.

Ariel were another one of the iconic British manufacturers and they were at Birmingham in force with their Honda VFR powered “Ace.” I am not normally a fan of custom bikes but I did like the Ace a lot. It’s quirky, especially with the Ohlin damped girder fork, practical and truly different. Yes, I could really fancy one of those and only the $30,000 starting tag – each bike is built to the customer’s precise specification so the price is very variable – puts me off a little bit. Although even this is sensible. What would it cost to take a Harley and trick it out to have 175 mph performance, decent handling and a unique look?

If Ariel are at the bespoke end of the custom/retro market, the one manufacturer which is targeting the mass market is Ducati with their Scrambler range. I can’t heap enough praise on this motorcycle. It’s not the loin tingling thrill of the H2, which appeals directly to my motorcycling soul, but rather a bike which is aimed directly at my business brain. Forget the Panigale, this motorcycle is going to make a lot of money for Ducati.

The bike takes styling cues from the original Ducati Scrambler – a 450cc Single which was a complete swine of a thing to start when hot and vibrated like a fully charged lady’s bedroom toy.

By contrast, the new scrambler has an updated version of Ducati’s much loved two-valve V-Twin displacing 803cc and providing 75 hp at 8250 rpm. It’s all anyone needs for fun motorcycling.

Peak torque comes in at a lowly 5750 rpm so it will be a doddle to ride for less experienced pilots.

The V-Twin fits beautifully into an equally modern, but very retro looking, trellis frame and the saddle height is low. Just as important is that the bike is narrow at the gas tank. These two factors are of major importance if you want to get a normal sized lady riding the bike easily and comfortably.

The Scrambler is very, very clever in that it doesn’t look tarty to fat, bald, old wrinklies like me but still has a real urban chic style about it. It’s a very subtle and complex styling line to tread and Ducati have got it right on the money. Interestingly, the Scrambler press kit contains a vast amount of information on accessories and clothing to go with the Scrambler so you can see where the accountants’ dreams are heading.

Finally, let’s remember what happens when politics gets involved in motorcycle design. In this case, it’s the Harley LiveWire project. Let me begin by saying that the bike looks beautiful in the flesh and I’ve no doubt that it is a rocket ship – for a few miles at least.

I’m certain that H-D has been leaned on hard to show their eco-credentials to the politicos and they’ve done a good job with what they have made. But here are two questions.

First, as a hardcore H-D fan, how good are you going to feel pulling out of Main Street at Sturgis on a silent electric bike?

Second, as you leave Denio Junction (population: 47) to ride across the 117 miles of High Desert to Lakeview, Oregon, where lies the next gas station if you had a conventional engine, how confident would you be of getting there?

These are the big truths about electric motorcycles and, elegant though the Harley is, it is the truth about the LiveWire Project too.

I can’t see me ever lying awake at night dreaming about riding an electric bike, no matter how well executed, but goodness me my sleep is going to be spoiled for months to come at the thought of the H2.